Last week, the New York Times ran several articles on noise in New York City. This is a somewhat momentous occasion for several reasons. First, although noise is one of the most commonly cited neighborhood nuisances in America, it almost never makes the news. Second, one of the articles and its accompanying photo ran on the front page of the Times – not bad for a ubiquitous but perennially ignored environmental exposure! Third, another of the articles focused on how badly the US lags behind most of the world on controlling workplace noise exposures. This is not the first time the media has focused on the fact that most safety and health regulations in the US are woefully out of date– but on the other hand, this isn’t exactly a problem that gets highlighted with great regularity, and the more attention brought to the need to fix the system, the better!
I had the great pleasure of working with Cara Buckley, the NYT reporter who wrote the articles, and was able to provide guidance on how she and her colleagues should measure noise levels in various locations around the city. Although my colleague Dr. Robyn Gershon (until recently at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University) and I have been assessing noise exposures associated with mass transit, work and leisure time activities, listening to music, etc. in New York City for the last several years, I have to confess that I was still surprised by some of the extreme noise levels measured by the Times in different commercial venues. The levels measured by the Times are in some cases high enough that workers in these different venues could receive an entire day’s allowable noise exposure in a few hours or less.
There are a number of take-away messages here for those who work and play in noisy environments in New York City and other urban areas. First, just because the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration has not targeted some types of workplaces – restaurants, bars, trendy stores and gyms, for example – for noise regulation enforcement doesn’t mean workers in these places don’t have substantial noise exposures. Quite the contrary – some of these workers may have noise exposures that equal or exceed those we associate with “noisy” industries like manufacturing and construction. Second, don’t assume that because a sound is pleasant that it can’t be harmful – some of the most hazardous levels measured by the Times were during exercise activities like spin classes, where the primary exposure source was music. Third, don’t assume that nothing can be done to reduce exposure to high noise. There are many protective behaviors that people can adopt to reduce their risk of noise-induced hearing loss, including 1) eliminating exposures where possible (e.g., eating at restaurants that are quiet enough to permit normal conversation); 2) using earplugs or earmuffs during noisy work and leisure time activities (the cheapest earplugs are often brightly colored and not exactly subtle to wear, but there are products available that are clear, much less noticeable, and designed for activities such as listening to amplified music); and 3) using sound-blocking earbuds when listening to music (these products block out ambient noise and allow music to be heard clearly at a lower volume).
Many millions of Americans suffer needlessly from noise-induced hearing loss and tinnitus (which often accompanies this type of hearing loss). While both of these conditions are permanent and irreversible, noise-induced hearing loss is completely preventable if noise exposures are sufficiently low. I hope that this excellent reporting by the Times will help raise public awareness about this situation and ultimately help motivate change. Given the fact that noise is associated not only with hearing loss, but also with heart disease, sleep disruption, stress, and other significant health effects , a quieter America is likely to also be a healthier America!